Chinese Market Gardens in South Fairfield

Large parts of the Fairfield neighbourhood were once farmland. Governor Sir James Douglas owned much of it, which he called “Fairfield Farm,” and leased out most of it to tenants who tilled the soil or built country houses.

By special contributor John Adams

Large parts of the Fairfield neighbourhood were once farmland. Governor Sir James Douglas owned much of it, which he called “Fairfield Farm,” and leased out most of it to tenants who tilled the soil or built country houses.

During the dry summer months water was essential for growing vegetables. Fortunately, Douglas’s property was well supplied with streams, ponds and swamps. One was the South Fairfield Stream which drained the Fairfield Swamp, sometimes referred to as King’s Bottom (roughly centred around the corner of May Street and Linden Avenue today). It flowed in a southeasterly direction across a low-lying piece of land south of May Street and emptied into Ross Bay where Memorial Crescent meets Dallas Road.

The South Fairfield Stream provided water for what were known as “Chinese vegetable ranches” located on the large tract bounded by present-day May Street, Moss Street, Dallas Road and Ross Bay Cemetery. An eye witness who knew the Chinese farmers there during the 1870s and 1880s was Chartres Cecil Pemberton (commonly known as C. C. Pemberton), the son of Police Commissioner, Augustus Pemberton.

Born in 1864, C. C. Pemberton grew up at the family home “Glenville,” a picturesque, rambling wooden structure tucked into a crevice in the lee of Moss Rocks, overlooking Ross Bay. The Pembertons’ house stood on part of the eighty-five acres they leased from Sir James Douglas in 1860. In turn, they sub let portions to other people, including Chinese market gardeners.

C. C. Pemberton spent his youth roaming the countryside around “Glenville” and was intrigued by the method employed by the Chinese to clear their land.

He wrote a detailed description of the process: “They first cut deep trenches around the bases of the trunks, severing the enormous wide-spreading roots at about ten feet from the trunks. The trees were then left standing. The first winter gale overturned the trees and in so doing pulled up the stumps. The trunks were then cut into cordwood and the Chinese harnessed several teams of horses to the big stumps and hauled these to the edge of the cliffs over which they were thrust and later burned in a huge bonfire.” (See the full document in the C. C. Pemberton Papers in the BC Archives). Water from the South Fairfield Stream, and possibly also from wells dug into the moist soil, was guided into irrigation ditches that crisscrossed the land.

Sir James Douglas, who had been Governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia until 1864 and who was very involved in agriculture, was impressed by the Chinese who were farming his land. After observing their spring preparation work during one of his daily horseback rides through Fairfield in 1874 he remarked that the Chinese “have their grounds in splendid order; their crops are coming along finely.”

Douglas was a giant of a man who worked hard himself and expected it of others. While he admired the diligence of the Chinese farmers, he despaired of their English neighbour, Jabez King, whom he noted was not thriving on his dairy, “chiefly through his own folly, being a thoughtless, improvident man.” To the contrary, he expected the Chinese would realize a large return and hoped they would be “well paid for their labour.”

Mark your calendar:

Join local historian John Adams on one of his popular Neighbourhood Discovery Walks. On Thursday, Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. he will be leading a tour through the site of former Chinese gardens. Meet at the corner of Moss and May Streets. Adults $13, seniors and students  $11. No reservations needed. For more information about this or his other tours check out or telephone Adams at 250-384-6698.

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